The Myth of Solidarity
I tried very hard to figure out the best way to write this, once I was advised by a professional to put it down on paper as a form of therapy I was sure it would be tough. Years have passed, and I’m just now deciding to write it (or at least what I remember) in the most permanent ink of all. Why? Because when you own who you are, no one can use it to harm you.
I must start you with a warning, because this won’t be some cleverly written tale, it won’t be masterful either, this will only be raw honesty.
In the wake of movements like MeToo and MeTooSTEM there have been times when I felt like the world is finally catching on, that all the things I once believed to be wrong are in fact wrong. That it was not me being “difficult” it was not me at all. Unfortunately, in life, and especially online “Solidarity” is an overused word.
I want to take you back to the beginning, 10 year old me, enrolled in Catholic school, living in a country where it seemed like ignorance was the comforting way of life. A married man in his 30’s I believe comes to visit my uncle and while he waits, he comments on how grown I look. I hit puberty at 9, so by 10yrs old I had developed breasts. I don’t think it meant much to me at the time, I was a child and I can barely remember, but do you want to know what I remember? I remember that man reaching under my dress on a different day, and then I remember him waiting for me outside my school on different occasions, I remember my heart pounding and me not even knowing if that’s what fear felt like. I remember him living across the street from my house, and I also remember that this was the first time in my life when I questioned what was happening, and whether it was normal. One day after school inside an abandoned building, as his hands groped my chest in a most painful way, he started to explain that this was all okay— that it just meant that he liked me. I didn’t mind being alone from a very early age but kept being told that wasn’t normal, so I felt self conscious about it. I enjoyed hiding in corners playing with bugs, dreaming of books I had no access to, drawing characters I wish I was, staring at the moon and talking to it, and I also wanted to be liked. This grown man listened to me, and pretended to care, so our encounters became our little secret.
Now, let’s jump ahead a couple of years to when I was 14, by this time I had visited the U.S. a few times with my mom (who turned out to be my aunt, but let’s save that for another day). By now, I thought I was this “well traveled” and experienced girl who knew it all— I knew nothing of course, but during one of those trips is when I learned what science was and my dreams for the future became clearer than ever. This isn’t about me loving science though, so let’s continue… During that time while back on the motherland, there was this guy who had developed “feelings” for me. I found this out because he had taken the liberty of talking to my grandmother about it; he had what was considered a good paying job so he came to my home with gifts, not for me but for the family. I didn’t have much of a say those days, and as some of you know by now I was raised to believe that gaining a husband and bearing children was a woman’s ultimate goal. Even though school and career was also taken into account in a woman’s life, there was nothing more important than landing a man. By this time I was already questioning everything under the sun, including the ridiculous indoctrinations I was raised under and the authority of every single man in my family. My biggest critiques were always about the way they treated their girlfriends/wives, women in my family aren’t submissive from what I could gather, but they let the men walk all over them. I had refused this idea so much that I stood up to my grandfather once, the one man in my family everyone seemed to be afraid of, and with good reason since he kept a bat hanging by a window as a reminder of what was to happen if one of us got out of line. He never used that bat on me, but one time he almost beat me to death because I talked back. Little by little I became “the black sheep” the girl that always talked back, the girl who was too angry, and my need to speak up earned me many beatings. There is one particular beating I remember most, when I turned 15yrs old. This is also where the guy who had expressed he liked me comes in again— one day he came to my house and asked my grandma if he could see me, she agreed. I was never allowed to even leave the house on my own, so the fact that this guy got time alone with me was already a very big deal in my eyes. I didn’t want to spend time with him, I wanted to go out and walk on the block but I wasn’t allowed. I had to be polite and receive him, so he came in with some flowers and sat next to me, I don’t remember what he was talking about; I’m assuming this is because I didn’t care one bit— next thing I know he is grabbing me and trying to kiss me, and what I remember the most in that moment is the utter disgust I felt. I didn’t feel scared like when I was 10, and I didn’t want to understand what was happening, I wanted to hurt him. I pushed and punched him away from me and in the chaos my grandma came back in and sent him off, because I expressed my disgust and anger I got a beating for my birthday. That was the last time I remember seeing him.
After this my goal became to find out why these things made me so angry and disgusted, while everyone around me seemed to be okay with it. Even when I went out with my grandmother to do the food shopping, the men catcalling me or making jokes to her about trading me off used to ignite so much anger in me that I would stop and want to hit them. That was, of course, unbecoming of a lady so I tried my best to control myself at all times. Eventually my lack of knowledge over things that seemed basic, coupled with my absolute love of learning outside of my extremely Catholic upbringing would sent me off to one of my biggest quests, to learn if there were other reasons why women needed to have menstruations other than for procreation. I didn’t know how women got pregnant, but I knew men had to do with it and I was so afraid of that happening to me that I was determined to avoid it. By the time I was 15 there seem to be a never-ending line up of grown men trying to get to me, something I didn’t know back then is that because my skin was a little lighter I seemed to be some kind of sexual commodity, because of my motherland’s well documented anti-blackness. Some of these men were friends of my family, people my aunts and uncles once went to school with. Even though I felt my family would’ve protected me; I was terrified of anyone touching me. I never blamed my family or at least the women in it, because to me they were just a product of all the ignorance and religious indoctrination they were raised under. They were all smart and hard working women who liked education. Once I turned 17, I came to live in the US permanently; I was enrolled in high school here even though back in the motherland I was already done with it, but because I didn’t speak English they sent me back 2 whole years. I was angry and refused to engage for the first few months, the school actually told my mom that I needed special help because I was a problem teen and wouldn’t go far if not helped. I hated high school in the US, nothing was about learning, I didn’t feel guided, I felt like I was ahead yet always held back, I didn’t know who I was at all, so that didn’t make things any easier. I had no interest in becoming friends with anyone I just wanted to be left alone. To make matters worse, I was living with a stepfather who used to make me try on my underwear in front of him, something that even at 17yrs old I couldn’t comprehend. I tried talking to my mom, but I was told that it was okay, and that he just wanted to see how the stuff looked on me so we could return it if it wasn’t comfortable. This is when my understanding of boundaries got really messed up, I was already half convinced that this is how things are and that me being touched and looked at was supposed to be taken as a compliment.
I was overwhelmed, a directionless kid with dreams of science that were going nowhere. In the midst of all of that is when I met a man I’ll be calling “A”. This guy showed me what I believed was love, and because I was so lost I felt a sense of belonging with him. He was kind to me, or at least that’s how I saw it because he did all the ridiculous “romantic gestures” movies talk about. I loved him, and so eventually I left high school to be with him. I met his family, he even helped me run away and I moved in with them. I thought that was it for me, I had found the man I needed in order to feel protected— I thought I was doing something right and securing a future like l was “meant to do”. I thought maybe I could start a family, and follow my dreams of education with his support. Except that’s not what happened at all, his father was a true deviant, the kind who used to force himself on me when “A” went to work. One time I was so tired I didn’t even fight him. After a while of hiding and crying, of developing anger, I managed to work out the courage to tell “A”, but even though he expressed anger he never did a thing about it. Soon enough it was clear to me that his father was used to getting away with this sort of thing, and this culture that shrugs this kind of behavior was more common than I had ever imagined.
I know what you’re thinking by now “why didn’t she just leave him?” that’s what everyone says isn’t it? That’s what I would’ve said, but things just aren’t that simple. Reporting something like this is fruitless, I tried and all it did was anger me even more, the filing of paperwork that went nowhere was just insult to injury. Eventually “A” and I moved out, but I was already in a very unhealthy state of mind. After we got our own place I ended up pregnant with my son, and I was so alone that I tried to reunite any family I had here in the US during that time. For a moment, having family around made me feel stronger, so I decided to focus on having them be a part of the baby’s life, so we could all be together. That plan went south very quickly, once they came back into my life they started to dictate what would happen with my child only by talking to the father, they even went as far as to tell “A” to ignore what I say and just do what he wants. I had enough, I knew I wanted out but in my culture you don’t just up and leave your husband—least of all after having a child. I went into what I now know was Postpartum Depression, I deemed myself a terrible mother who couldn’t even perform basic tasks for her child. The father’s family was around so they fed into that, until one day I decided to leave it all. This is when I became homeless, because no one wanted to help me for having left my husband. Most people who have read about me know that part of the story by now, so there’s no need to go back to that. Since I couldn’t have my son, because I had no one to turn to or a place to have him in, I decided to go back to “A” and in exchange for a roof over my head and the chance to be by my child I was asked to pay with my body, I sustained the mental, physical, financial, emotional, and sexual abuse until one day I was able to save some money and move out with my son.
Once I was “settled” at my own place is when the part about me wanting to pursue my science education comes in, once again those who have read about me already know that part so I won’t get into it. During the time I was trying to study science is when I met a certain Astronomy professor who seemed to be very well known and established in his field, something he made very clear to me. He was even connected to NASA one of my most beloved organizations, as I mentioned on a Twitter thread about MeTooSTEM, this professor’s interest in me meant the world to me but only because I thought he really believed in me. His constant interest in me gave me validation after feeling I was nobody my entire life. Soon enough his real motives became clear after talks of an expedition quickly turned to talks of wine, and being alone in a tent in the middle of nowhere while he kept me warm. Now even the field I love was tainted by what so much of my old life had been. That’s when I learned once and for all that I was never “crazy” that this is normalized torture; it is everywhere and can affect any part of one’s life.
Now here’s the true reason why I named this blog post “The Myth of Solidarity” there have only been a very small number of times in which anyone claiming “solidarity” over anything in my life have ever truly meant it long enough to show it. I have tried to open up before, and although I’ve received a lot of support I have also been the target of extreme insensitivity by multiple people who claim to advocate for survivors of abuse like me. The one thing these people seemed to have in common is that they were all academics, hiding behind their book-knowledge of what some of us have lived. Using academic expertise in topics like abuse to belittle voices they didn’t have the decency to hear before condemning them. One of these people and perhaps the one that has caused me the most anger is a Sociologist (I actually respected once) who claimed I was “recreating patriarchy” by lamenting over the death of some children who were murdered. To this person this meant that I didn’t care about the mother, that to me women were just vessels to be used for childbearing, and so I was part of the problem. This was a brutal and absolutely disgusting assumption made over something as trivial as a typed sigh* gesture I had made. With that comment this person had disregarded the years of abuse and suffering I have endured, and I am sure the person will never even realize the trauma that she caused me to relive.
The point here is, if you’re going to claim to be an advocate, to support survivors, if you’re going to parade around wearing your solidarity oh so proudly online, and enjoy the applause for it; then the least you can do is make sure you live up to it by being careful with your assumptions and how you address others. After that incident I couldn’t bring myself to be open about this no matter how much I tried, I actually became quite scared of the idea of voicing this at all. I was silenced again, but this time it was by those who claimed to be the support system for people like me.
These days there isn’t a single cell in my body that can tolerate the word “patriarchy” and even seeing people throw the term around in their elaborate tweets and speeches of solidarity triggers both my anger as well as PTSD, because I didn’t get to study patriarchy, nor have I ever written fancy publications and blogs about it, I got to live it.